The Surprising Ways Students Relate to the Classics

How does an intuitive notion about education, one with the power of clarity and simplicity, become a problem?

The Surprising Ways Students Relate to the Classics
The Surprising Ways Students Relate to the Classics from akarra1

In a few minutes, I'll be presenting on curriculum development using the slideshow above. The presentation is organized into three parts:

  • Key Questions and Takeaways
  • The Great Books Debate
  • Teaching the Classics

The heart of the presentation is in "Key Questions and Takeaways." I ask the audience to think about what they consider "classic." I also ask if they're treating something in practice like it is "classic." —Is there a textbook they consider the authority? Rules or norms that are essential to being a student?— I know reflection on these matters is critical. If you realize you're assigning more importance than you thought to a particular thing, you will more than likely change your approach to that thing.

The second section might feel like bloviating about the culture war. But I know it's important to document how reasoning about "classics" has directly informed curriculum development. There are schools devoted to "Great Books" which firmly believe they teach what is timeless. I do believe aspects of their approach have value. However, I've also seen this approach collapse into religious fundamentalism, excessive nationalism, and little or no understanding of the books or ideas that constitute the tradition. So it is worth asking a larger question: How does an intuitive notion about education, one with the power of clarity and simplicity, become a problem? After all, it's not wrong to declare some works "classic," essential to the tradition, and teach them—or is it?

The third section contains samples of my teaching. The slides don't contain any information about how I teach other than the conclusion. There, I emphasize making the material relatable ("family" is a theme which goes a long way), working with classics that are more accessible, giving students ideas that they can work with independently. The concept of "classics" won't ever go away, because the very act of teaching entails designating something as "classic."

If you're interested in reading more about these issues, Steven Mintz's "Can the Humanities Truly Transform Undergraduates' Lives?" is a good read. He paraphrases a brutal attack by Helen Vendler on Great Books curricula:

... [the classes are] an amateurish bull session, in which nonspecialists, with no special expertise, introduce undergraduates to a rather arbitrary selection of classic texts in translation without contextualization and devoid of serious, sustained attention to aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, logic or moral reasoning.

This attack isn't entirely honest. Vendler especially bemoans the lack of specialization in teaching Great Books. All of us who have a specialty know that the most important insights pertain to how very specific ideas relate to each other. For example, I know a lot about the various ways Xenophon depicts Socrates. How Socrates is more or less a noble guest in Xenophon's Symposium, how he improves the city in the Memorabilia, why he can't aim for conventional virtue in the Oeconomicus, why he's angry in the Apology. What I have is valuable, sure. But it certainly isn't what undergraduates or graduate students or even other colleagues always need! It's really for those who are thinking hard about what the life of Socrates meant to the development of philosophy as well as the thought of the ancient world. Those, in other words, already committed to a particular line of inquiry.

For everyone else--including other scholars!--mere exposure to other materials is incredibly valuable. Still, I'll concede this to Vendler, and not grudgingly: it is generally true Great Books curricula lack a serious sense of direction. One of the worst papers I ever heard tried to put Jane Austen and Immanuel Kant together. They were taught back-to-back in the core curriculum, the author reasoned, so might as well try to write something about both. At that point, Great Books should be under scrutiny, as the discussion it helped create is less than intelligible.